The Work Attributed to Spirits: Unraveling Desires in Creative Life – Something From Everything


“I just feel like if I stop pushing that boulder up for a second, it’s going to start coming down again. Maybe even crush me.

There’s a delicate balance to sharing with strangers on the internet. This comment was way too honest for comfort.

The group addressed was an online writing community, and a good community. Some online creative groups are just thinly veiled self-promotion machines. This group celebrated each other’s accomplishments, gave feedback (when invited), and twice a week wrote together (separately) on video in silence except for the occasional rustling of paper or keys. laptop typing in the background. From time to time, we’ve expressed our (uncomfortably honest) frustrations and disappointments with our creative endeavors, and the success (or lack of success) we’ve found in them.

“I just wrote a terrific article for a local magazine,” continued the man who made the above comment. “For a few days I had a big spike in traffic to my website, even a few signups for my newsletter. But a week later those same traffic numbers were down, the lowest in over a year. “.

“I mean, does all of this have any momentum if I stop pushing, if I don’t constantly sell myself?”

There were many murmurs of agreement. This one hit close to home.

It would be one thing if our entire collection of writers were just novices, lacking the experience, skills, and discipline to create something worth reading. But it was a talented group, littered with notable accomplishments.

Many of them have written articles regularly picked up by well-known websites and print magazines. A few have written novels distributed and produced by respected publishers. A handful were the top-ranked podcast creators. At least one of them has quit his day job to pursue writing and creating full-time (and while he may be hungry or even malnourished, he insisted he didn’t was not hungry). Many received various awards that all said, in essence, “That’s good. Keep on going”.

By many metrics, many of them were successful writers. But these “success stories” did not seem very successful at this particular moment.

A week later, another “hit” artist uploaded a recent bargain.

“I just hosted a book signing and get-together at the largest bookstore in downtown Vancouver on a Saturday. My editor was so excited. I was so excited that I stayed there for four hours. I sold three books. What am I doing wrong?”

Even the greatest writers of our time do not seem immune to this disappointment. In her seminal book on writing Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott reveals that after the publication of her first book, she realized with disappointment that “it looked like I wasn’t actually going to retire early. “.

She explains that similar expectations for fame and fortune would be repeated and dashed with the publication of many of her later books.

This disappointment is not the only possession of the writers. A form of “what am I doing wrong?” has probably been demanded by every person in every field of creative work, especially after some encouraging successes. We are all looking for momentum to create. We all too often check our website traffic or total number of downloads. We are all hoping for that viral post, that golden opportunity, that godsend. We are all gearing up for fanfare and stardom. We all secretly dream of early retirement.

We all want to be successful artists, but with each new and fleeting success, our frustration and disillusion grows. Perhaps we mismeasured our success. Maybe we need a new vision of what work even is.

One of my favorite written works, Poem of the Woodcarver (a Taoist tale, generally attributed to Chuang Zu) deals with the complex relationship between creativity and creation, pride and prosperity, work and wonder.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell holder out of precious wood.

When it was finished, everyone who saw it was amazed.

They said it must be the work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master sculptor:

“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: I am only a worker: I have no secrets.

There is only this:

When I started to think about the work you commissioned, I kept my mind, I did not spend it on trifles, which were out of order.

I fasted to ease my heart.

After three days of fasting, I had forgotten the gain or the success.

After five days, I had forgotten about praise or criticism.

After seven days, I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

By then all thought of Your Highness and the court had vanished.

Everything that could distract me from work was gone.

I was collected in the sole thought of the steeple.

Then I went into the forest to see the trees in their natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the steeple also appeared there, clearly, without a doubt.

All I had to do was reach out and get started.

If I hadn’t encountered this particular tree, there would have been no steeple at all.

What happened?

My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this living encounter came the work that you attribute to the spirits.

The Woodcarver’s Poem does not correct or address any of the (legitimate) disappointments of my writing group or mine. Understanding the concepts of this poem will not increase readership, get book deals, increase website traffic or newsletter signups. He will no longer sell books during book signings.

All these worries and hopes are understandable, but they are also secondary, illusory or even distracting. The woodcarver’s poem is a tale of singular focus. This is what exasperates me and intrigues me at the same time. I want to know how to see the bell standing in the tree and get paid and praised for it! I want to write work that is true and transcendent and increase my web traffic and downloads.

I want to write the novel and get the publishing deal. These things are deeply intertwined, but are not at all the same. The master sculptor needed to forget about success, esteem and even himself for a while.

There’s a reason he fasts and doesn’t go into the forest for seven days. It takes a long time to let go of bad metrics.

Fortunately, the poem also offers us much better measures, even if they are more demanding. It reminds us that there is deep work of infinite worth that has nothing to do with summoning royalty or the court (success), nothing to do with praise or criticism (esteem self) or even our own self (ego).

It reminds us that there are works of art so sublime that they are both current and timeless, natural and otherworldly.

If it is necessary to choose only one singular objective, it is clear that work is ultimately its own reward, and that of incomparable value.

Just after Anne Lamott warns the reader about the pitfalls of publishing, she declares that “publishing is not all it’s made out to be. But the writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises”.

This is the work we are going to do. The live encounter at the intersection of our preparation and the wild and hidden potential of life. A chance to reveal the stunning beauty hidden in plain sight. Something attributed to the work of spirits.

Now that is something worth pursuing.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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